Memorial Day (Non)Memories
Every Memorial Day, I find myself musing about a man I never met. He was my husband’s uncle, but Michael never met him either.
This would-have-been uncle-in-law died while fighting in the Pacific Theater sometime during World War II. The man I’ve only heard about was referred to as “June” by my late father-in-law and his siblings; Michael assumes that less-than-masculine nickname was a shortened form of Claude Ditmore Jr., but he’s not totally sure.
I’ve never learned a lot about June’s death, other than he was officially declared missing in action when his plane was shot down somewhere around New Zealand. No body was ever recovered for his heartbroken parents to bury. After the war, a veteran from a neighboring town reportedly visited the family and claimed he had seen June’s body on a beach during a fierce battle. He told the family to abandon all hope that June would ever come home, that he was definitely dead even if the U. S. military could not account for him.
There probably aren’t many people left alive who ever knew June. His parents and siblings are all dead. He didn’t live long enough to marry or have kids of his own. He never knew any of his nieces and nephews or their families. If any friends from his childhood have survived, they would be nearing 90 now and might have trouble recalling anything about the boy who died almost 70 years ago.
We have stopped off a couple of times in Bronte, Texas, to make sure that our two sons get a chance to see June’s name on the war memorial that stands in the center of town. That is about all we can give to them of this long-lost relative. We don’t tell stories of June’s heroism because we simply don’t know any. We don’t make June into a larger-than-life figure because we wouldn’t know how to do that. But we don’t want our sons to forget that a close family member paid the ultimate price in a war that changed the world forever.
I sometimes wonder how my husband’s life and the family that we have built might have been different if June had lived. Maybe June would have had a son who would have been my husband’s best childhood cousin/friend and who would have stood as Michael’s best man in our wedding. Maybe June would have had half a dozen sons and daughters and maybe we would have spent vacations visiting some of those cousins and their families. Our kids would have played with their kids and we would have enjoyed all the jokes and anecdotes that families share.
But there are no cousins to visit, no family memories to share. The details of June’s brief life have been mostly lost with the deaths of his brothers and sister. A name on a faded memorial remains. And I am grateful for that memorial and for a day set aside to help me remember this man I never knew. And to honor the many men like June who fought and died so young that they left behind little more than a legacy of service and sacrifice.